The Ticking Bomb of Peace and Conflict Studies (1988)

Education, if it means anything, produces a change in at least the store of knowledge (one hopes a gain) but often also changes in the way people feel about the world they live in (their attitudes) and in the way they think about it (their mode of cognition).

The "ticking bomb" evokes an image of an impending disaster with time for forestalling it running out. The threat of a nuclear war is often depicted in this way, A clock showing a few minutes to twelve appears on the cover of each issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. This journal was founded shortly after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by scientists who had worked to produce the bomb. After they saw what it did, they realized the deadly peril their success presented to all of humanity. So they decided to devote their journal to informing people of what threatens them (regardless of their nationality, ideology or preparedness for war) if their leaders continue to identify the danger of extinction with "national security".

For Andre Ryerson the "ticking bomb" has a different meaning which he makes clear in his article in the Wall Street Journal of May 31 last. Mr. Ryerson sees horrendous danger not in the prospect of a nuclear war but in informing people about the consequences of such a war, disclosing obstacles in the way of removing the constant threat, exploring the psychological and political hang-ups that nurture an addiction to violence. In short, Mr. Ryerson sees the real danger lurking in programmes of education about the age we live in - the Nuclear Age. His article is entitled "The Ticking Bomb of Nuclear Age Education.”

His concern is with the "loss of liberty that would follow from a pacifist foreign policy." It seems that under the guise of "global education," "nuclear age education" and "peace education" the young are being taught to interpret the world "from a radical perspective." Among the subversive ideas taught in these programmes, it turns out, is a suggestion that it was wrong to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that competition (an antithesis to "sharing") divides the world into hostile camps and that private property is a source of social conflict. "These are not doctrines most parents expect to find in the local school," Ryerson points out, "nor does the average tax payer imagine such uses for his money".

There is a case to be made for the point of view that all education is indoctrination. In fact, anti-indoctrination can also be regarded as indoctrination. This is the way education appears if only its end result is examined and the way of achieving it is ignored. It goes without saying that education, if it means anything, produces a change in at least the store of knowledge (one hopes a gain) but often also changes in the way people feel about the world they live in (their attitudes) and in the way they think about it (their mode of cognition). All of these changes can be adduced to "indoctrination", as indeed they are by people who do not approve of them. People who approve of the changes in attitudes and in ways of thinking produced by education call them "enlightenment."

But is this all there is to it? Is it just a matter of whether one welcomes or resents the end product of education that makes it "enlightenment" or "indoctrination"? Not quite. The difference is brought out more clearly if instead of looking at the end product one looks at the way it was brought about. Indoctrination achieves its results by constricting the range of knowledge and ways of getting it, by narrowing the channels along which thoughts are allowed to run. Enlightenment broadens both the range of knowledge and ways of attaining it.

Educators who take their calling seriously insist that education should enable people to think things out for themselves. This does not mean that instruction should be limited strictly to teaching "facts," eschewing any interpretations. It means rather that people should be made aware that there are several ways of interpreting what is happening, that maturation entails learning to live with a certain degree of ambiguity, ambivalence and uncertainty, learning to distrust ready-made simplistic answers to every bothersome question.

To some people such prospects are frightening. They want to cling to accustomed certainties and, above all, want everyone else to cling to them: the certainty that the world is an arena where good guys are fighting the bad guys; that we are the good guys; that the way to come out on top is to have more muscle, to be quick on the draw, to keep the finger on the trigger (today we call it the Button), not to be fooled by the enemy's soft talk. According to people of Mr. Ryersons's persuasion, "nuclear age education" in its various guises threatens this stance. It undermines the "will to win" by spreading doubts and heresies. Eventually the foundation of our strength and liberty will crumble, the whole edifice of certainty and self-righteousness will come crashing down and "they" will "take us over." This is why "nuclear age education" is a ticking bomb.

Mr. Ryersons's fears are probably exaggerated. It will take more than peace and conflict studies programmes to produce the sort of "changes in our way of thinking" that Albert Einstein said are indispensable for reversing the drift to irreversible catastrophe. Also, if these changes occur, they won't cause an explosion of a "ticking bomb" imagined by Mr. Ryerson. Rather they will come gradually and unevenly as all the lasting changes in ways of thinking came that produced everything we cherish in civilization, more humane attitudes and relations, a better understanding of the formidable complexities of the world we live in. Nor will they come about as results of indoctrination, as Mr. Ryerson imagines. Rather they will be results of enlightenment, a broadening of perspectives acquired through habits of independent critical thinking; in short, closer acquaintance with the realities of the nuclear age.